, December 2008
In his liner-notes to this issue Gerhard Dietel writes: ‘If it were not for the current ambiguity of the term, the songs [on this disc] could be succinctly referred to as women’s songs’. The ambiguity lies in the fact that today’s feminist movement means that such songs should be ‘written by women tackling traditional stereotyped roles with the feisty tone of the women’s liberation movement’. These songs—or rather poems—are not.
The cycle Frauenliebe und –leben was written by the male poet Adalbert von Chamisso. He certainly puts the words of the poems in a woman’s mouth but the attitude is the traditional 19th century male perspective with a submissive woman. Schumann set eight poems but Chamisso’s cycle had a ninth poem, depicting the woman in old age, reminiscing about her youth when she sees her granddaughter having fallen in love. This poem manifests the female treadmill but Schumann expresses the same situation by composing a long piano postlude to the cycle where he refers to the opening song.
For some reason the cycle has been thought of as mezzo-soprano territory—at least in my world. The darker timbre of a lower voice naturally hints at an older woman remembering. At least some of the most penetrating recordings of the cycle have been made by mezzos. I have reviewed during the last few years superb interpretations by Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker and Brigitte Fassbaender, the latter being possibly the most profound of all. This is not to say that a soprano can’t be just as successful; my first recording of Frauenliebe und –leben back in the early 1960s was with Irmgard Seefried, by then admittedly not a particularly high soprano any longer. I also have several other sopranos in these songs and the music is so lovely that the vocal pitch is of secondary importance.
Sibylla Rubens has during the last few years risen to the elite of interpreters of German Lieder. A few months ago I praised a disc by her in the Naxos Schubert Edition (SCHUBERT: Lied Edition 26 - Romantic Poets, Vol. 3 on Naxos 8.557832) and about a year and a half ago I also heard her on an earlier issue in this unrolling Schumann Edition (SCHUMANN, R.: Lied Edition, Vol. 3 - Lieder-Album fur die Jugend, Op. 79 / Lieder und Gesange I, Op. 27 on Naxos 8.557076) Her light soprano is as far removed from the dark mezzo tones of the ladies mentioned above as can possibly be imagined. The effect is of a young woman in the midst of a love affair—we are in a way peeping over her shoulder while she confides her innermost thoughts and feelings to her diary. And it is a youthful reading to match the voice: rather simple and straightforward, which is not to say that it lacks nuance and feeling for the text. She also chooses rather quick tempos; compared to the three mezzos she is in practically every song somewhat faster, in some songs considerably so. But it is not a superficial reading, it is rather a more youthful one, full of the insight one has after the first flaring of love. Süsser Freund, du blickest mich verwundert an is as inward as any other reading I have heard and when adversity strikes she darkens the voice effectively.
Frauenliebe belongs to great song year 1840. The remaining songs on this not too well-filled disc are from the period after Schumann’s move to Düsseldorf in 1850. They have never been particularly highly regarded and they lack to a large extent the overwhelming inspiration of the earlier songs. But, like everything else in Schumann’s oeuvre they are not without interest. Here we also encounter true women’s songs, insofar as the 7 Lieder and the Maria Stuart songs are settings of female poets. Elisabeth Kulmann—I have also seen the spelling ‘Kuhlmann’—was a poetess of German-Russian extraction. She was highly regarded in her time, encouraged by Goethe as well as Jean Paul. She was a child prodigy ‘who understood eleven languages, spoke eight …’ and wrote excellent poetry. This was published by her language teacher after her death at the age of only seventeen in 1825. Whether he edited the originals seems to be uncertain. Schumann admired her, as poet and as person, and had her portrait in his study. Obviously she was very mature considering her age and there is nothing childish about her poems. Schumann’s settings are stormy and melancholy by turns and only Der Zeisig (The Siskin) is cheerful. They are well sung but the songs in themselves are not very memorable.
The authenticity of the Maria Stuart poems is contested but they are still deeply touching. Composed in 1852 the songs are no less memorable melodically than the Kulmann songs but they are still inspired in a kind of parlando writing. They are, as Gerhard Dietel writes, prosaic and the piano part is almost ascetic. Abschied von der Welt is a song that grows with every hearing. Sibylla Rubens sings it with bleakly drained tone and at the same time intensely. Gebet is also heartrending in its total despair but still with faith in God and Jesus. These two songs are, in several respects, the highlights of the disc.
The last group of songs (Op. 107) to poems by sundry writers are also declamatory but with a much more active piano part. In Die Spinnerin one can hear the spinning wheel in the vein of Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. In Im Wald one hears the poet wandering through the wood. The concluding Abendlied is a serene meditation but the piano part tells us that we shouldn’t be too sure …
Apart from Frauenliebe und –leben this is not Schumann at his best but the songs are worth hearing for the more complete picture they give of his oeuvre. Sibylla Rubens is as always a pleasure to listen to. Even though she may not scale the heights—or maybe depths—of Frauenliebe the way Fassbaender and her mezzo colleagues do, hers is a valid youthful reading of the cycle. Uta Hielscher, who is the pianist on all the issues in this series, plays with customary expression and intelligence.